As a kid that was a question I found myself asking repeatedly. I’d be completely petrified by even the tamest of ghost stories told by my friends at sleepovers and I just truly didn’t understand the appeal of terrifying yourself as, apparently, a form of enjoyment. Then, in my late teens, I started to get it. Now don’t ask me how, but my fear of horror novels and films turned into a fascination. I suddenly understood the appeal of scaring myself.
For decades the modern horror genre has held the reputation of being a low-brow, self-indulgent genre which is almost pornographic in its presentation of violence. And there certainly are films and novels like that within the genre; the “torture porn” movies of the early 2000s which sprung out of the success of the original Saw (2004), for example. It’s my theory that horror has retained this reputation for so long, however, because it is a genre which has remained resolutely within the boundaries of pop culture. Other similarly speculative genres — sci-fi and fantasy especially — drift in and out of being considered literary and “art”, but beyond its roots in the traditional Gothic horror has never been treated in the same way. Essentially, horror has been seriously misunderstood and misinterpreted. It seems, though, that the most recent years are bringing with them a change in this category, which I’ll elaborate on later.
Of course, it is undoubtedly true that the horror genre isn’t for everyone, but it is for a lot of people. One publishing market overview placed horror as the fifth most popular genre in 2020. Like most of the other more popular genres on the list (romance, crime, and sci-fi), this is likely down to the wide-ranging subgenres that horror provides. In the modern era where genres are mutating and crossing over all the time, there is an endless choice of horror subgenres to peruse or write. I would also argue that the genre is becoming increasingly diverse, with representation from non-white and non-male authors and main characters expanding with every new release. Explorations of what it’s like to be a woman and/or a person of colour in the world are feeding into horror more than ever before. And it’s feeding into the increasing popularity of the horror genre: Jordan Peele has become a household name for his incredible horror films; horror novels from indigenous writers such as Stephen Graham Jones and Waubgeshig Rice are reaching a larger audience as they are finally being published outside of the US and Canada.
I never really thought about why it is that so many people are attracted to horror, at least until I read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre (1981) while completing research for my undergraduate dissertation. In this autobiographical and analytical work, King connects the growing popularity of horror fiction in the twentieth century with the tumultuous and traumatic global events that seemed to happen one after another. After all, what better way to work through your own paranoia and fear about the world than through a fictionalised story that evokes all the same emotions without being direct retellings of events? And this isn’t a recent development. It all certainly stems from modern horror’s origins in the Gothic. In the same way that Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) plays upon fears surrounding the frequency of school shootings in the United States, Stoker’s Dracula (1897) invokes his contemporary readers’ fears of invasion by Eastern powers.
Ultimately, it all links back to Aristotle and his Poetics. I know, but just bear with me here. The overall aim of tragic plays in Aristotle’s time — as opposed to the comedies — was catharsis. One of the most accepted theories behind his meaning of catharsis is that by experiencing fear and other tragic emotions in a controlled environment, such as the theatre, the audience could purge themselves of their own anxieties in a safe space. Ghost stories even date back to a similar era of history, with one of the first recorded being in a letter from Pliny the Younger to a friend, in which he tells a story about a haunted house in Athens.
Sure, much of the modern horror genre is now infinitely more explicit than ancient tragedies and even the original Gothic novels ever were, but the same rule applies. Contemporary fears surrounding the future of the world (after the trauma of multiple economic crises, global warming, and a global pandemic) can be explored and experienced in safe metaphors where the heroes win out. Or, maybe they don’t. But we still get to live out our fears in a controlled and safe environment. I would also say that watching the latest Conjuring movie or reading the most recent Grady Hendrix novel gives us a sense of catharsis we can’t get anywhere else. We can experience terror, horror, and disgust in the safety of our own homes where we know (or, at least, we hope) these fictionalised monsters can’t get to us. And they make us feel a bit better about our own problems as well; I may have an exam I haven’t studied for next week, but at least I’m not being hunted by a centuries-old demon or bloodthirsty vampire.
When it comes down to it, it is as Stephen King wrote, ‘we make up horrors to cope with the real ones’.
I have a few recommendations I’d love to make, too. For first timers (or those who are looking for something not too bone-chilling), I’d recommend the novels Rosemary’s Baby (1967) by Ira Levin and The Haunting of Hill House (1969) by Shirley Jackson; they also provide an excellent background to the origins of modern horror. As a starting point for films I’d recommend The Woman in Black (2012), which, while it does contain a few jump-scares, is an interesting Gothic Horror that focuses more on story than scares. I’d also recommend Scream (1996), which is one of the least gory slashers out there and is just plain funny. I may be biased on that one as it’s one of my favourite films, ever. Comedy-Horrors are always the best entrance into more explicit or scary horrors, I’ve found!
For those well-versed in the genre and looking for something a little different I’d recommend My Heart is a Chainsaw (2021) by Stephen Graham Jones, a novel which takes a new stance on the traditional slasher. Honestly, any novel by Stephen Graham Jones is a refreshing and diverse take on many different horror subgenres – particularly his older novels which unfortunately don’t yet have UK publishers. As for films, there are plenty of underrated and overlooked pieces I’d love to recommend but, as a die-hard (pun fully intended) slasher fan, The Faculty (1998) is a fantastic play on the subgenre which goes under a lot of people’s radars. If you’re looking for something more recent, however, 2019’s Ready or Not is also truly excellent. If you’re not a slasher fan, there’s always the found-footage horror Lake Mungo (2008), which managed to do something unique with that particular subgenre; something increasingly difficult following the boom of found-footage movies after the success of The Blair Witch Project (1999).
I’d love to know what everyone’s favourite horror pieces are, or if you have a favourite subgenre of horror to write in! Leave a comment below with your thoughts.
About the author:
Georgia Read is currently studying an MA in English Literature at the University of Surrey and she has a particular passion for Gothic Horror. Her undergraduate dissertation focused on the writings of Stephen King, and her plans for MA dissertation are to look at Native American Gothic. When not spooking herself with the latest horror media, Georgia will be spending time playing with her Whippet puppy, Zemo.